Analyzing Melendez, Cox, and Bowlan (Royals “21 in 21”)

MJ Melendez, Austin Cox, and Jonathan Bowlan are the No. 10, No.11, and No. 12 prospects in the Royals “21 in 21″ Prospect Watch.

Today, the Royals dropped their new advertising slogan, “Together Royal”, which is a change from the “Always Royal” slogan they have used the past couple of years.

Honestly, I’m kind of “meh” on the new moniker. I like it more than previous slogans such as “Raised Royal” (felt kind of elitist; what about those who came to grow in their love for the team, like myself), “Forever Royal” (doesn’t sound as good as “Always Royal”), and “Our Time” in 2012 (oof…that didn’t age well after a 72-win season). However, it just feels pretty generic, though I imagine the nod to being “together again at Kauffman Stadium” was a huge factor in the creation of this slogan (i.e. we need fans to pay for limited, overpriced tickets for at least a month or two).

Anyways, the revealing of this Royals slogan for 2021 means that regular season Major League Baseball is on the horizon and though Spring Training has been great, it will be nice to see games that matter for a change. Spring Training stats, on both ends of the spectrum, are pretty difficult to analyze, and it can be easy to overvalue both good and bad numbers from the limited samples of Cactus League play.

That being said, there are plenty of stories to talk about as Royals fans prepare for the starting of the season in about a couple of weeks. Will Bobby Witt, Jr. break camp on the Royals Opening Day roster? Who will be in the starting Royals rotation? Who will be in the bullpen? How will the Royals finish in the AL Central? I will definitely talk about those stories and more in the coming days.

But for now, let’s focus on the prospects in the “21 in 21”, with a special emphasis on catcher MJ Melendez, and pitchers Austin Cox, and Jonathan Bowlan, the No. 10, 11, and 12 prospects, respectively.

Has MJ Melendez lost favor with the Royals brass?

Two years ago, MJ Melendez was the crown-jewel catching prospect in the Royals system. Going into 2019, he was coming off a 19-home run campaign in Lexington where he posted a .251/.322/.492 slash in 111 games and 472 plate appearances with the Legends, according to Baseball-Reference. The Royals had not had much luck with prep catchers previously, as Chase Vallot, a former first-round pick in 2014, failed miserably in the Royals system, as he failed to advance above High-A ball from 2014 to 2019, posted a slash of .212/.338/.420 in 1,956 Minor League plate appearances, and struck out 750 times total over the six-season sample, according to Baseball-Reference. While Melendez certainly has strikeout issues of his own in the Minors (143 in 2018), his power upside, athleticism, and defensive ability more than made up for his whiff problems, unlike Vallot, who became a Minor League free agent this past off-season.

Unfortunately, much like Seuly Matias and Nick Pratto, Melendez struggled immensely at the dish in 2019 with the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks. In 110 games and 419 plate appearances, Melendez posted a miserable .163/.260/.311 line with 165 strikeouts in 419 plate appearances, which was actually 53 fewer plate appearances than in 2018. The prospect out of Florida also only hit nine home runs, and only drew one more walk in 2019 than in 2018 (44 to 43, respectively). While Matias and Pratto had rough years in the pitcher-friendly environment of Delaware, one could argue that Melendez’s line was the worst out of all of them, especially since he couldn’t credit his regression due to injury (unlike Matias).

That being said, while Melendez struggled at the dish with the Blue Rocks, he got even better behind the plate defensively. His caught stealing rate improved from 42 percent in 2018 to 60 percent in 2019. Furthermore, he made seven fewer errors in 2019 (13 in 2018; 6 in 2019) and improved his fielding percentage by 10 points (.981 in 2018 to .991 in 2019). And he did this in a similar amount of innings behind the plate, which demonstrates his improvement was legitimate defensively from 2018 to 2019. Thus, Melendez’s defense was a big reason why the Royals invited him to Spring Training last year, an honor they did not extend to Matias or Pratto, initially (the Royals did invite all three to Summer Camp).

Melendez spent all of last year at the Alternate Site, which was important for him to not only get valuable work behind the dish with pitchers in the upper levels of the Royals system but also to work on his hitting, which saw massive declines in 2019. However, while the Royals talked up the gains made by Pratto and Matias this past summer, not much was said about Melendez, which was a concerning sign, especially since he had been highly lauded just two off-season ago.

Furthermore, Melendez’s future became more in doubt after the Royals added Sebastian Rivero to the 40-man roster this past Winter in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. While the Royals still have a year to add Melendez to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, the fact that the Royals added Rivero, who’s never had the prospect status of Melendez, was an interesting move by Dayton Moore. Additionally, the Royals have been talking up Rivero over the past year, and he has made a splash in Spring Training, as he is posting a 1.143 OPS in 6 games and 7 plate appearances, which also included a home run.

Here is a brief snippet of Rivero talking to the press after his big game on March 10th:

What is Melendez’s line this Spring? Well, he went hitless in five plate appearances, drew a walk, and struck out twice in four games. Furthermore, he was sent to Minor League camp during the first round of “cuts“, and he’s been pretty much a non-factor since.

As of now, Melendez seems to be fifth in the Royals organizational catcher depth chart, behind Salvy, Cam Gallagher, Meibrys Viloria, and Rivero. With Viloria and Rivero already assigned to Triple-A Omaha, it seems likely that Melendez will be in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, though the Royals could have him start the year in High-A Quad Cities if they want him to work on his hitting a little more (which they may do with Matias).

Wherever he plays, Melendez will need to see some growth in his bat in 2021, and he will need to cut down on the strikeouts just a little. Melendez certainly has defensive skills that could be valuable as a backup at the very least. But With Rivero clearly ahead of him on the depth chart, and Salvy most likely commanding an extension next off-season, there won’t be much room for Melendez in 2022 and beyond in Kansas City unless he shows that he can be a two-way catcher at the next level.

And even then, with such a crowded catching field at the top, it is likely that Melendez could be used as trade bait if he has a resurgence at the plate in 2021, especially if the Royals are contending and looking to add a veteran.

Melendez is a talented catcher, and not all is lost on him and his outlook as an MLB player. That being said, if Melendez is going to find success at the MLB level, it most likely will be with another organization outside of Kansas City.

And that is only if he can hit again somewhat in 2021 too.

Will Cox and Bowlan be the new top Royals “pitching prospects”?

Right now, it seems like a matter of time before all the Royals’ top “pitching prospects” make their debuts.

Brady Singer and Kris Bubic should be in the Royals rotation on Opening Day (though who knows how many starts they get in the first month or two). Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar should find their way to Kansas City in late May at the soonest, July or August at the latest. And though Asa Lacy has not pitched a professional pitch, he should move quickly in the Royals system, as he is expected to debut in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, according to Roster Resource’s Royals depth chart.

However, what will the Royals’ pitching depth look like after those five pitching prizes move onto the Royals big league roster within the next year or two?

Well, the Royals pitching prospect depth could be in good shape with Austin Cox and Jonathan Bowlan, who both made solid impressions this past Spring, even though they were also sent to Minor League camp after the first round of roster moves. 

Both Cox and Bowlan proved to be strikeout machines in their limited stints in Cactus League play. Cox made two appearances and struck out six batters while walking two. He did allow three hits and posted a WHIP of 1.50, which is a little high, but he did not allow an earned run in his Cactus League stint. 

Cox currently ranks as the 10th best prospect in the Royals system, according to MLB Pipeline, but he had a rough stint at the Alternate Site in 2020 after a solid campaign in High-A Wilmington in 2019 (2.77 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 11 appearances, and 55.1 IP, according to Baseball-Reference).

Here is what Pipeline said about Cox in their most recent report:

The Royals drafted him in the fifth round of the 2018 Draft, and the lefty was a model of efficiency in his first full season between Class A and Class A Advanced. Cox had a tough summer working at the Royals’ alternate training site in 2020, adjusting to more advanced hitters and working on his secondary pitches, but he left in a good spot heading into 2021…

Cox bulked up some before going to the alternate training site, and it might have led to some of his battles in 2020. He struggled with getting the ball down, which led to a ton of contact against him. But the Royals were encouraged with where he left things and are optimistic that he’ll have a bounce-back year. He still has the makeup and talent to project as a big league starter but would not be out of place as a big arm near the back of the bullpen.

“No. 10: Austin Cox” Royals Top 30 Prospects; MLB Pipeline

Here’s a look at some tape on Cox from 2019, and he may remind Royals fans a little bit of Bubic, though his delivery is less extreme than Bubic’s. 

As for Bowlan, Pipeline rated him as the 8th best prospect in the Royals system, and at 6’6, 240 pounds, he is a hoss of a pitcher who casts an intimidating presence on the mound. Bowlan did better in High-A Wilmington than Low-A Lexington, which was the inverse of Cox. With the Blue Rocks, he posted a 2.95 ERA in 13 appearances and 76.1 IP, which was a big improvement from his 3.36 ERA in 11 appearances and 69.2 IP with the Legends, according to Baseball-Reference. Nonetheless, the solid performance earned him a late invite to the Alternate Site as well as the instructional league at Kauffman this Fall.

Bowlan garnered his first invitation to Spring Training, though he only made one appearance in Cactus League play. Nonetheless, he looked pretty good, as he struck out three batters in his one inning of work. Granted, he did give up a home run in the appearances, but his ability to make batters swing and miss this Spring certainly caught the attention of Royals fans and media members:

The fact that Bowlan also struck out the San Francisco Giants’ top prospect is a promising sign that his stuff may be able to carry as he garners more innings in the Minors in 2021. There is still some debate in regard to whether Bowlan will have a future as a starter or a reliever, but he is a grinder who can eat innings, and he did throw a no-hitter back in 2019 in Wilmington which shows the kind of potential he could have at the MLB level.

Cox and Bowlan may not possess the same kind of prospect luster that Singer, Lynch, Lacy, Kowar, and Bubic have/had. That being said, they are legitimate arms who could be in play in the Kansas City rotation in a couple of seasons, if they stay healthy and if things break right. Pitching prospects are often volatile commodities, and can be very difficult to project (hence, why the adage “There Is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect” exists). While Royals fans may expect all five pitching prospects to succeed and be the rotation of the future, history proves that at least a couple will struggle in their transition to the Majors, and that’s not including the possibility of injury, which is always high for pitchers in general.

And thus, if one of those five prized prospects doesn’t live up to the hype, could either Cox or Bowlan (or both) fill in for them in Kansas City? 

It’s not out of the realm of possibility…

As long as Cox and Bowlan stay healthy and continue to produce on the mound in Double-A in 2021.

Photo Credit: Burlington Royals/Twitter

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